The Fall of the Ottomans by Eugene Rogan, book review: Tragic tales of the Gallipoli campaign

 

It's hard to imagine soldiers having to face more nightmarish conditions in the Great War than they did on the Western Front. But that may be true of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, which was intended by British politicians and generals to deliver a swift knockout blow to the Ottoman Empire, but instead ended in an Ottoman triumph and lengthened the conflict.

Although casualties were fewer, combatants who served on both fronts said that conditions at Gallipoli were yet more vile. In France, troops could take leave well behind the front lines; here there was no respite from the incessant shelling, sniping and mines. The unburied bodies which lay between entrenched enemy lines stank in the summer heat and attracted swarms of flies carrying sickness from the dead to the living.

Amidst these horrors, there were moments of fraternity between the armies. "Johnny Turk" was not demonised by the Western Allies as the Germans were. At some points, the trenches were so close that gifts could be exchanged. A Turkish soldier remembered throwing cigarettes, raisins and nuts to the Anzacs, who reciprocated with cans of fruit and jam. Another eyewitness account tells of a private in the Lancashire Fusiliers who saved the life of an Ottoman soldier during a battle and subsequently had his own life saved by the same man.

Such personal stories drawn from diaries and memoirs enliven Eugene Rogan's satisfyingly straightforward narrative, and nowhere more so than in his account of the genocide perpetrated by the Young Turk leadership against the Empire's Armenian subjects.

The horrors of the enforced "death marches" are especially vivid. Thousands were murdered by bands of armed men. Stragglers were finished off by the guards. Others committed suicide by hurling themselves into rivers, including the mother of one survivor, a nine-year-old boy who was taken in by Kurdish villagers as the columns of wretched Armenians passed through to their planned exile in the Syrian deserts.

The creation of a homeland for Armenians in the Caucasus was one outcome of the First World War. The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire led to many other territorial changes, above all in the Middle East, where new borders were drawn by the triumphant Western allies to further their imperialist ambitions. These borders have endured for nearly a century – until last year, at least, when Isis declared an Islamic Caliphate and abrogated the border between Iraq and Syria.

The last Caliph was the Ottoman Sultan, who theoretically exercised religious authority over Muslims worldwide. British and French fears that his call for jihad would inflame Muslim subjects in their colonies turned out to be largely exaggerated. Rogan raises the question of whether 21st-century fears of global jihad are equally misplaced.

But the post-war settlement imposed by greedy and sometimes perfidious European powers have left the Middle East riven with conflicts, not least between Arabs and Israelis, to this day.

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